U of Illinois ad department lives, but it's work in progress

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When we last heard from the College of Communications at the University of Illinois, there was a move afoot to disband the ad department, the nation's oldest, because of a lack of leadership and because the curriculum had drifted toward theory over practice.

The good news, I'm happy to report, is that advertising studies is staying as a separate department within the College of Communications. The bad news is that not much is changing to give ad studies more of a hands-on flavor. What's more, the college is establishing a new media studies department, designed to appeal to liberal arts students, to examine the "barrage of information overload" extant in our society, according to the new dean of the College of Communications, ex-Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent and business writer Ron Yates.

The ad department's future was in doubt after a provost committee concluded that the program had become "less about advertising and more about persuasion, the culture of consumption, and a critical analysis of materialism in society."

Dean Yates, for his part, disagrees with that characterization. He told me that the committee's description of the ad curriculum was based on "misconceptions" and "was not actually accurate." He added that although there aren't any changes in course selection, the ad department, with the appointment of Steve Helle as interim head, "now has leadership, and that's huge." Also, he said, the department is bringing in an ad professional to teach a class on campaigns.

Professor Helle told the Daily Illini that his main task will be to prepare the department for a long-term head. "One of my tasks is to pave the way for a permanent department head," he said. "I need to work my way out of this job."

Richard Herman, provost of the university, said in a letter to Dean Yates: "We agree that there are serious concerns about the Department of Advertising, including concerns that will not be solved easily, quickly or by simply adding some new faculty."

Some of these concerns might be that the overall curriculum within the College of Communications still seems to favor theoretical studies on the impact of advertising and materialism on consumers. The ad department got off track when it set up the Institute of Communications Research as a separate department and subsidized it with revenue from the ad department. Now, Dean Yates says, the ad department will fork over less money to keep the institute "propped up."

But the ad department retains the courses that the provost committee found fault with, such as the Social and Cultural Context of Advertising; Consumer Communications and the Public; and Persuasion and Consumer Response.

Dean Yates concedes "it's been a tough year," but he says the College of Communications is now "much more focused and unified, and we have a better idea of where we want to go." The ad department is "still down and needs to be built up," he said, and the college plans to "look in the professional world" for a permanent ad department head.

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